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The Food-Mood Connection

Popular culture loves emotional eating. Think about how many movies or TV shows you’ve seen where a woman is in tears, on the couch, eating ice cream straight out of the carton, watching a sad movie after a break-up. It’s been done so many times that movies and tv shows will poke fun at it. I’m thinking about that episode of Friends in which the girls help Chandler get over his breakup with Janice with a tub of ice cream, first the “low-cal, non-dairy, soy milk junk” and then “the good stuff”. Just last night I watched Miss Congeniality; sure enough in the first part of the movie Gracie is at a bar upset about a work problem and asks for a pint–of not beer–but Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. And most of us have done it before–ate something because we were sad, upset, stressed, ashamed, or just bored. It usually works, temporarily though; eating something sweet–or salty, if that’s your go-to–takes your mind off your woes and releases feel-good brain chemicals. Emotional eating is a prime example of how food is connected to mood.

Now, I’m not condoning emotional eating. Although we all do it from time to time and there usually aren't huge repercussions to come from doing it once in a while, it’s not the best choice we could make. If you’re distracting yourself with food, you’re not addressing the root cause of your uncomfortable emotion. Also, the foods you crave when your emotions run high typically are full of sugar or simple carbohydrates, both of which spike your blood sugar and make you crash in a few hours. Overeating when you’re emotional can lead to further uncomfortable feelings, such as shame and guilt, and trap you in a cycle of shame-eating. Lastly, eating food low in nutrition can take the place of more nutritious foods, the latter of which may help you feel good over a more sustainable period of time.

Yes, we know our favorite sweets or deep-fried foods can make us feel good temporarily, BUT we speculate that foods packed with nutrition can improve mood and maybe even mental health over time.

Many studies have been done on the Mediterranean-style dietary pattern, which is rich in fruits, vegetables, olive oil, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds, yogurt and lean protein such as chicken and fish. It primarily consists of whole foods, and thus, fewer processed foods. This eating pattern (notice I'm not saying diet) has been associated with overall good physical health: lower blood pressure, lower incidence of diabetes and cardiovascular events, reduced inflammation, a healthy gut microbiome, and better cognitive function. The foods in the Mediterranean-style dietary pattern are high in vitamin D, antioxidants, fiber, unsaturated and omega-3 fats, phytosterols, and probiotics, and these are most likely what we can thank for these health benefits.

This isn’t ground-breaking news. We know that nutrient-dense foods are good for physical health. What’s exciting is that some of those nutrients and food components listed above have also been linked to a lower risk of depression. Vitamin D is known to affect mood: a deficiency of the vitamin can contribute to depression, and a lack of sunlight-produced D in the winter months can lead to seasonal affective disorder. A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that women who ate more foods with high amounts of vitamin D had a lower risk of depression than women who consumed less vitamin D. Fish are good sources of vitamin D, as well as fortified orange juice and milk.

Antioxidants fight inflammation, fiber aids digestion and slows the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream, omega-3 fats support brain health, and probiotics support gut health. All these components of the Mediterranean-style eating pattern can benefit your mental health.

So back to the beginning. Highly processed foods full of sugar and sodium make you feel good for a brief period of time. But when your blood sugar crashes, you feel weak, tired, irritable, snappy–hangry, in other words. What’s better is to nourish your body with complex carbohydrates (yes, I said eat carbs!) and fiber at regular times throughout the day to keep your blood sugar more stable. This will help keep your mood stable too.

You might be wondering if there are foods that specifically increase the risk of mental health issues. A 2014 study in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity did find an association between depression and a high intake of sugary beverages, refined grains, and red meat. Another ding against sugary, processed foods.

But this is where things get tricky. Although the recommendation is to eat less processed foods, less sugar, less red meat, and more whole fruits, vegetables, fish, and whole grains, the takeaway should not be restriction and avoidance. All foods still fit into a healthy lifestyle. Once you get to the point of saying no to foods you like, creating rigid food rules, and losing flexibility around eating, you’re doing more harm than good to your mental health. You try so hard to be healthy you actually end up doing the opposite. This is called orthorexia nervosa, and it’s a disordered eating pattern that is associated with anxiety and can lead to other problems, like depression.

So, what I want you to take away from all this is:

  1. All foods fit, and there are no bad foods. Yes, some foods may have more nutrients than others, or more sugar than others. But eating one cookie won’t harm you, just as eating one salad won’t benefit you much. What’s more important are the foods you eat consistently, and the amount of them that you eat.

  2. If you have anxiety and/or depression, or if you want to improve your mental health, try eating more fruits, vegetables, olive oil, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds, yogurt, chicken and fish. Unlike sugary foods, these foods might take a bit of time to have an affect on your mood, so be patient.

  3. Focus on adding nutrient-dense plant foods rather than eliminating any food. Always add instead of eliminate. Chances are you’ll eat less of those sugary foods and foods that don’t have much nutrients simply by the fact that you’re full from the nutrient-dense food you're eating.

  4. The goal is a balanced, nutrient-dense eating pattern that includes regular meals and snacks to nourish your body and mind. No need to get wrapped up in naming your eating pattern; this is a sustainable eating pattern, not a diet.

  5. Don’t forget other lifestyle factors that play a role in mental health too. Make sure you’re consistently getting enough sleep, drinking enough water, exercise regularly, have someone to talk to, and have a healthy outlet for stress.

  6. Sometimes you try everything on your own and you’re still struggling with your mental health. Mental health issues are complex and sometimes don’t get better without professional help. It’s ok to reach out for therapy or medication.

  7. Intuitive eating–being mindful of your body’s hunger cues and nourishing your body with the food it needs at the time it needs it, despite what outside influences say–is so beneficial for mental health. It lowers anxiety around food and eating, while supporting your mood with good food. If you found value in this post and want to find out more about how intuitive eating can help you nourish your mind and body, schedule a free discovery call with me today!



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